Feedback without Criticism

by Miki Kashtan

I have yet to meet a person who likes criticism. Instead, what most of us do is contract inside when we hear a criticism. Sometimes we respond defensively, sometimes we add the criticism to our pile of self-judgment, and sometimes we deflect and ignore what's being said. In the process, we rarely manage to make use of the vital information and opportunities that useful feedback can provide: learning, better teamwork, or simply insight and understanding.

On the other end of this painful and familiar dynamic, it is well known that both in personal life and in the workplace most people dread giving feedback. Knowing how painful it can be for people to hear a criticism, and how rarely feedback leads to productive conversations or satisfying change, it's sometimes difficult to imagine that giving feedback can have beneficial consequences. Add to that how few people have been trained in concrete skills for giving usable feedback, and you get a recipe for disconnection, resentment, or teeth gritting when time comes for performance evaluations or less formal feedback giving.

And yet feedback loops are essential for any individual and group to function at full capacity and potential. Knowing how our actions affect others and the larger whole of which we are a part can support us in learning when and how to change course to contribute to others around us.

Since all of us need feedback, let's take a look at how we can offer it to others in ways most likely to create the effect we are hoping for: increasing performance while building trust and supporting goodwill all around.

There is much we can do to make our feedback digestible to another person, and to minimize the risk of being heard as criticizing. We can work on where we are coming from in offering feedback, and we can work on developing concrete tools that make feedback more useful to others.

Often confusions around feedback stem from a blending of two different motivations for letting others know of the effect of their actions. Becoming proficient in offering feedback takes us through learning to distinguish between feedback and personal trigger. Providing feedback is usually motivated by a desire to contribute to the learning of another person and to the functioning of the whole. Sharing a personal trigger is usually motivated by a desire to be heard, understood, or attended to. When we mix the two, we are likely to create confusion.

At least some of the time people hear criticism because it's there. If we want to reduce the risk of being heard as criticizing, let's indeed transform our judgments and evaluations. By working with the journal following this article, we learn step by step to release our stories about the other person, and instead become solid in our understanding about what the behaviors are, why they matter, and what we want done about them. Each of these steps moves us from personal trigger to feedback, and makes our feedback more effective and useful.

Specific Observations: The more we are able to point succinctly to specific behaviors instead of vague generalizations and evaluative statements, the more the other person can keep her or his attention on what we are talking about without getting caught in evaluative words. In addition, using observational language can help shift our consciousness away from judgments and trigger, and to make room for the possibility of different ways of understanding the behavior.

Why This Matters: Our work with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) keeps showing us how important it is for people to understand why something matters to the person speaking — either because it is important to her or him personally, or because of what's at stake for the organizational whole. When people understand why something matters, they are much more motivated to want to do what's asked of them. Moreover, for the person providing the feedback, naming the values and needs that lie underneath our evaluations (and even judgments) tends to bring relief and clarity, and supports us in having feedback that's less charged and therefore easier to hear.

Concrete Suggestions: Even when there is clear understanding of what the goals and values are, and what the significance of the requested change could be, many people can still find it difficult to digest feedback if it comes without specific strategies they could put in place to contribute to the desired outcome in terms of goals and values. Part of why this particular step can be so challenging is that we are called to trust that others would, indeed, want to support what matters to us and the whole. We are asked to shift from telling people what to do to a sense of partnership with them in moving toward shared goals.

Openness to Dialogue: Even when we have clarity about what we want to see change, and we express it without intended criticism, our feedback may still generate defensiveness or resistance if we are completely set on having the outcome we want, without regard for what the other person might want. Forging and sustaining a sense of partnership, especially in contexts where we have structural power, is no small task. The more we are able to show understanding for the experiences of others and the choices that others make, including the understanding of what might have led them to take the actions we found challenging, the more of a sense of partnership others can experience, along with more goodwill towards us. Similarly, if we are able to remain open to creating a solution together instead of being attached to a particular outcome, others can sense that their well-being matters, and are likely to be much more willing to stretch in our direction.

As more and more people learn to offer feedback based on these principles, the overall dread of feedback giving can diminish, and feedback can be restored to its fundamental function: a method for people to work together to create environments where productivity flows, where trust and goodwill flourish, and where individuals thrive.


© by Miki Kashtan